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Lorena Villa-Parkman/ MEDILL REPORTS

Mild winter brings rare bird sightings

by Lorena Villa-Parkman
Jan 10, 2012


Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A rufous hummingbird was spotted in Oak Park.

Birds chirped away through the season's mild weather during the 112th annual Audubon winter bird count.

Birders assigned to the Chicago lakefront and other areas reported sightings of species not usually present during this time of the year, including the snowy and saw-whet owls, mockingbirds and hummingbirds. Birds gathered in a broader area since habitats such as Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers aren't frozen and provided continuing food sources.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society, took place from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 this winter. Compilers are tallying the numbers, which will become available in the coming weeks. The event enlisted thousands of bird watchers, scientists and volunteers all across the US who wanted to be part of the traditional census.

“No question there were more species than usual,” said naturalist and author Joel Greenberg, the Chicago lakefront compiler for the Christmas Bird Count. The veteran birdwatcher said that some birds linger every year regardless of the temperature, but this year more stayed behind rather than migrating.

“The weather has been gentle so we saw a bunch of birds that in a colder year we wouldn´t have been able to spot,” Greenberg said. “The hermit thrush and the yellow-bellied sapsucker weren´t expected and they were just hanging around.” The birdwatcher´s preliminary count for the area that he is compiling includes 40 species for the Chicago lakefront and 73 species on the Evanston shore.

Jeff Sanders, the Chicago urban compiler, said he was particularly excited to spot a rufous hummingbird in the early days of the count. “It´s the first time we had them in the count” for winter, Sanders said. “It stayed for four days in Oak Park, south of the Eisenhower Expressway.”

A birder near North Halsted Street reported seeing two mockingbirds hiding behind shopping carts at Binny´s beverage deposit parking lot. “We almost never get them, they go south and these ones were still here," Sanders said. The expert spotted the mockingbirds next to a large banana that might been fed to them by a passerby.

A lucky bird watcher caught sight of a Henslow´s Sparrow in Evanston. Geoffrey Williamson, compiler for the bird count and expert birdwatcher, said that it has been more than 40 years since that bird was last seen in Illinois. “A Henslow´s Sparrow was reported during the 1950-1951 census and another one on the 1964-1965 count,” said Williamson, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The sparrow chose the company of several other types of sparrows near a wet ditch. “Any other year, the area would have been frozen and we wouldn´t have been able to find anything there.”

Williamson said that every Christmas bird count is different and that unusual things happen each year. “Some one-time events are contradictory to certain ongoing trends,” he said. “This year is probably not that much different, but the mild weather did had an impact on what was present during the count.”

A suggestion for bird enthusiasts or amateur bird watchers: Morton Arboretum, North Point Marina and the Montrose Harbor are great places to spot birds during this season. “This time of the year you might want to go there,” said Anderson. “Almost anywhere where there is open water or food for birds is a good spot for bird watching.”